The Sunday Edition

In praise of trains — Michael's essay

Trains manifest strength and gentleness at the same time. The engine must be powerful enough to pull all that tonnage through city and country. At the same time, the gentle, almost metronomic rhythms of the rocking motion, can bring serenity to our monkey brains.
Canadian Pacific Railway was the economic and political link that joined Canada from east to west. (CBC)
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Trains are like libraries. They take us to places and show us things that we could never have reached on our own.

Trains have the mystical ability to suspend time. There are only two horological imperatives on a train trip: depart time and arrival time.

Between those two markers, time is under the sole proprietorship of the ticket holder. He or she can spend it as they wish.

Trains manifest strength and gentleness at the same time. 

The engine must be powerful enough to pull all that tonnage through city and country. At the same time, the gentle, almost metronomic rhythms of the rocking motion, can bring serenity to our monkey brains.

Commuters walk to their trains at Toronto's Union Station, the heart of VIA Rail travel. (Ian Willms/Getty Images)

I was born and blessed with a passion for trains. Any kind of train heading anywhere. I have also had several opportunities to indulge that passion.

My first train trip was with my mother to Kingston. I can remember opening the car window and sticking my head out. I may have been eight.

I have ridden trains from the Atlantic to the Pacific in this country and across Europe. On one memorable trip, I sat in the cab of The Canadian with two engineers as we trestled across a bottomless gorge in B.C. On another assignment, I travelled from Dealey Plaza in Dallas along the Mississippi into the guts of downtown Chicago.

On one trip to Prince George, our train broke down in the middle of nowhere. We passengers had to lug our bags through a small woodland to sit beside a deserted highway until a special bus picked us up.

Trains have inspired more movies, music, poetry, novels and historical memory than airplanes. Think Gordon Lightfoot and his Railway Trilogy. Think about the world changing drama of the sealed train carrying Lenin to the Finland Station and the Russian Revolution. Or the Lincoln, FDR and Bobby Kennedy funeral trains rolling past thousands of Americans, their heads bowed.

The world's greatest train buff was E.M. Frimbo who wrote for Harold Ross's New Yorker magazine.

Frimbo was the delightful alter ego of New Yorker writer and editor Rogers E.M. Whitaker. Frimbo first appeared in the magazine in the 1940s. Over the next four decades he, along with staff writer Tony Hiss, would describe various train trips extolling their virtues over cars and planes.

It is said that Frimbo/Whitaker travelled 2,748,674.73 miles.

When Frimbo/Whitaker died in 1981, his ashes were scattered over a mountainous section of track in Colorado.

Of all the myriad bungles and bad decisions perpetrated by various Canadian governments, one of the very worst was to let national railway companies opt out of local train service.

Dante has prepared a special place in hell for those malefactors.

The essayist E.B. White once wrote: "Railroad trains are such magnificent objects, we commonly mistake them for destiny."

Sometimes, at night when I hear a train, I think they just might be.

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